Have you ever felt guilty, and sorry for something that you did wrong? Has the sting of your own sin ever pierced your heart? This is an experience that can be tricky to handle. Our culture generally encourages us to pursue a life of self-fulfillment, giving no place to guilt in our lives at all. If we have wronged someone, sure, we should apologize, but in the end it’s more important that we move on and be happy again.
Even among many Christians, this sort of mentality has been taken up and given pious language. God is a God of forgiveness and mercy, we’re told. As far as the East is from the West, so far has he removed our sins from us. There is no condemnation in Christ; we are set free from the penalty for sin! Most of these are direct Scriptural quotes, not mere sentiment. But does that mean a Christian should never feel guilty?
PSALM 38 – THE PRAYER OF A GUILTY CONSCIENCE
It’s probably best if you just go read this Psalm before continuing reading this blog post. For those of the “live a guilt-free life” mindset, this Psalm will probably come across sounding rather foreign to their sense of spirituality. Let’s break this down into sections.
- Verse 1 contains a plea for mercy.
- Verses 2-14 describe the misery of knowing one’s own sinfulness.
- Verses 15 & 16 express the reality that only God can deliver one from trouble.
- Verses 17-20 express our human inability to save ourselves or rely on one another.
- Verses 21 & 22 return to the beginning, offering to God a plea for mercy.
Now, perhaps the combination of ingredients in this psalm make sense to everybody. You’ve got recognize your sinfulness in order to repent and turn it over to God, after all. But to spend more time wallowing in the misery of your own sin… isn’t that un-Christian?
Despite the current fads in Christian devotions, this miserable self-examination is actually very biblical and appropriate for a Christian to undertake. In my favorite pastoral manual, The Country Parson, by George Herbert, chapter 27 contains this interesting advice for pastors:
The Country Parson is generally sad, because he knows nothing but the Cross of Christ, his mind being fixed on it with those nails wherewith his Master was. Or if he have any leisure to look off from thence, he meets continually with two most sad spectacles: Sin (God dishonored every day) and Misery (man afflicted).
This flies in the face of popular devotion today which insists that Christians are to be living a life characterized by joy. Joy, after all, is a fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. However, a quick search through the New Testament for the word “mourn” reveals that there is indeed a proper place for mourning in the Christian life; and almost every reference to mourning is linked to the present reality of sin. You see, if we are seeking to conform our mind, will, and heart to Christ, then sin will be truly grievous to us. If we are to be desiring perfect union with Christ, then we will come to despise anything that holds us back from Him. And, of course, nothing separates us from God more than sin.
With that in mind, take another look at Psalm 38. It turns out to be a very godly and pious lament over how awful sin is. When we dig into our hearts (with our spiritual eyes open), we always find sin, and when we’re in our right mind, that discovery is saddening. Being sinful is like:
- being shot by God’s Arrow of the Truth (or the Law). [v2]
- loss of health. [v3]
- a burden too heavy to bear (exactly as Anglicans pray in corporate confession). [v4]
- having an infected flesh wound. [v5]
- having collapsed in misery. [v6]
- intense stomach pain. [v7]
- the turmoil of feeling emotionally crushed. [v8]
- longing and sighing for something lost. [v9]
- losing all motivation to do good. [v10]
- being separated from friends. [v11]
- being marked and hunted by enemies. [v12]
- being unable to express your pain or even to accept comfort. [v13]
- being too overwhelmed even to lash out at anyone anymore. [v14]
Has your sin ever made you feel like this?
If not, then perhaps it’s time to have a careful heart-t0-heart with Jesus. And I would strongly recommend seeking the help and guidance of a Priest or Pastor or Elder or other mature Christian leader.
If you have felt that misery due to your own sin, good. Don’t feel guilty about feeling guilty. We ought to mourn our sins as we discover them! Allow Psalm 38 to help you express that guilt and mourning; may its words provide you with the words that perhaps you struggle to find on your own.
But, finally, don’t forget the last few verses of this Psalm! Confession is not just about wallowing in your sins, but about handing them off to Christ on the Cross where they can be dealt with properly. Our sins are more than we can bear, but Christ has borne them on the Cross! When, as verse 17 says, you are ready to fall because the pain of your sin is constantly eating at you, then the time is ripe to confess your sins to God in your sorrow (verse 18). Go ahead and name them out loud to Him. Even do this with a Priest so you can hear God’s response of forgiveness audibly! For, as the last line of the Psalm proclaims, God the Lord is “my salvation.” We mourn and lament and confess in the complete trust that God can both handle it, and solve it. Real grief, properly worked through, is transformed to real joy.